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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: Baseball Hall of Fame honors Tampa guys


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And now there are three.

Three Tampa guys, alums of local high schools, whose careers have been accorded Major League Baseball’s ultimate honor, membership in its iconic Hall of Fame: Jesuit High’s Al Lopez, Plant High’s Wade Boggs and now Jefferson High’s Tony La Russa.

La Russa’s HOF ticket was punched for being the third winningest manager in MLB history. He began managing at age 34. His 2,728 wins rank him behind only the legendary likes of Connie Mack and John McGraw. That’s the sort of company his bust will keep in Cooperstown.

But while La Russa, the Ybor City and West Tampa product who learned his baseball at MacFarlane Park, won three World Series and a ton of baseball games, he will also be remembered by family and friends for who he is outside the lines. Although a gifted enough athlete to make his major league debut as a teenager, he was never a stereotypical jock.

He speaks fluent Spanish. He’s a vegetarian. He’s an author: last year’s “One Last Strike.” And his humor is wry. To wit: “When I first became a manager, I asked (veteran manager) Chuck Tanner for advice. He told me: ‘Always rent.’” Bada bing.

While known for his “old school” hunches and intuition, La Russa was also ahead of his time in playing percentages and scrutinizing statistics. In his book, “Men At Work,” George Will credited La Russa’s statistical analysis for presaging the acclaimed “Moneyball” mentality popularized by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (and further refined by Tampa Bay Rays’ GM Andrew Friedman).

In a sport where off-seasons are for working out and leveraging your name, La Russa chose to further his education. He was no baseball diamond in the rough. He always had a back-up plan.

He has an industrial management degree from the University of South Florida. He also has a law degree from Florida State University. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1980, a year after beginning his managing career with the Chicago White Sox.

Off-seasons have also been a time for La Russa, 69, to indulge in a passion that transcends anything to do with his career. He and his wife, Elaine, are founders of Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, Calif. It saves abandoned and injured animals. It also runs programs that bring dog and cat visits to abused children, hospital patients, seniors and shut-ins.

Frankly, that might say more about the man than those three World Series rings, one from leading Oakland and two from managing the St. Louis Cardinals.

And his career could not have ended in a more fitting fashion.

His 2011 Cardinals won the Series, and he announced his retirement shortly thereafter. How many consummately successful people, whatever their calling or pursuit, have the opportunity — or class — to bow out on top? Ask Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Muhammad Ali.

As Sugar Ray Leonard once said: “It’s hard to leave center stage.”

So hard, that only a very few can ever orchestrate the ultimate exit. Tony La Russa has been an exception to a lot of rules.

Minimum wage debate

As we’ve been seeing, the debate over the minimum wage is heating up again. It’s part of the greater discussion about income inequality in the context of economic recovery, which doesn’t cover everybody. For the record, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and the Florida minimum wage will be $7.93 on Jan. 1. Approximately 2.6 percent of all workers made the minimum wage last year.

For some, it’s not enough to make ends meet. We’ve all seen the media coverage of fast-food workers, including here in Tampa, and their recent strike-and-protest day that underscored the fight for higher wages. Anecdotal accounts reminded us of a blunt reality: Some lives and lifestyles can’t be supported on a minimum wage.

But you don’t have to be a greed-head, captain-of-industry Scrooge to see a bigger picture here. Are we talking wages for workplace labor — with a market value — or are we talking wages-plus-subsidy for lifestyle support? It has to be asked.

It might not be in the Christmas spirit, but you can’t talk entry-level, low-skill jobs without referencing the market value of that labor — and the slippery slope of what it takes to price certain jobs out of existence. You also can’t avoid talking about personal responsibility. What has — or has not — preceded a “just getting by” wage crucible?

The right to organize, sure. The right to negotiate, sure. The right to whatever it takes to meet a given worker’s needs? Surely not the same argument.

Ros-Lehtinen reaction

Not that it surprised anyone, but how, well, unMandela-like, was that knee-jerk response by South Florida congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to President Barack Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro before the president gave his Nelson Mandela eulogy in Johannesburg? She called the gesture, among other things, “nauseating.”

How ironic. Mandela was the very personification of reconciliation. Actually, how nauseating of Ros-Lehtinen.

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